When Justice Is Out of Reach

Accountability is a long way off for Bashar al-Assad. But the world can still preserve the memories of what has happened in Syria.

Syrian children inside a camp tent
Ed Kashi / VII / Redux

Some years ago, I was given an assignment by Vanity Fair to track down war criminals and former dictators who, despite being ousted from power, hadn’t yet seen justice. As I hunted down their villas on the French Riviera, one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world, or in the cobbled side streets of Paris’s 16th arrondissement, I was reminded, not for the first time, that after war or upheaval, bad guys rarely face a timely reckoning.

Instead, they can live in luxury—like Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, who had the run of enormous private properties in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before his death in the resort city in 2019, and whose cronies remain free. Some face a measure of justice, but much delayed, like Saddam Hussein, or die at the hands of their victims, like Muammar Qaddafi. A few manage to cling to power, like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad falls into that final group. He is still fighting a decade-long civil war, but effectively, Assad has won, after orchestrating the murder, rape, torture, and chemical gassing of his own people. He will not face justice, at least not for now. The International Criminal Court has limited jurisdiction in Syria, because Damascus never signed its governing treaty.

This does not mean, however, that the international community should give up attempting to bring about justice. Mechanisms are in place to ensure that this pursuit can continue—such as Germany’s and France’s attempts at exercising what is known as universal jurisdiction, or a potential war-crimes investigation, in the U.K. against Assad’s wife, Asma, who is a British citizen.

And even if justice cannot be secured through these means, much else can still be done until it is.

When a civil war does eventually end, what comes next? Does a country just start anew? What if the conflict’s perpetrators will not be punished for decades, if ever? Beyond the pursuit of justice, how important is it to remember?

By 2011, when the Syrian conflict began, many of the country’s people had smartphones. That meant that when a barrel bomb was dropped on Aleppo, when someone was dragged out of their home in the middle of the night, when a protester was beaten or shot in the street, an ordinary citizen might have cataloged it.

Those photos—as well as thousands of documents that have been bravely smuggled out of Syria—are now in the hands of United Nations investigators working in a kind of war-crimes clearinghouse in Geneva known as the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM). This evidence includes material collected by the likes of the White Helmets, first responders who work in Syria. Even if the Syrian war were to end tomorrow, and all respective parties put down their weapons, justice would not be meted out immediately. The preservation of memory, however, doesn’t have to wait.

The White Helmets are, in a sense, guardians of memory. They wore GoPro cameras on their helmets during the worst of the conflict, so even as they were digging through rubble to find survivors of bombings—and, inevitably, dead bodies—they were documenting Russian and Syrian government atrocities. (Unsurprisingly, the Russian bombers who have aided Assad have specifically gone after the White Helmets, targeting them as they attempt to rescue victims of attacks; other pro-Assad groups have launched internet campaigns to discredit them.)

Syria is not the first country to confront this problem of preserving memory. In 2007, decades after General Francisco Franco’s death, Spain passed the poetically named Historical Memory Law, allocating funds for exhuming mass graves, and to bury the dead. More important than the money doled out are the law’s psychological aspects: It finally gave rights to victims and their descendants, and formally condemned the Franco regime.

Two other brutal conflicts I have covered, in which many bad guys walked away, also offer lessons—Bosnia and Rwanda. Unlike the perpetrators in those places, Assad remains in power. But those two countries today can inform what happens next in Syria.

Commemorating victims is an important part of post-conflict healing. Both Bosnia and Rwanda have done important work in this regard. Every July, a painful commemoration takes place in Srebrenica, where families of the approximately 8,000 Muslim men and boys who were slaughtered by Bosnian Serbs gather in a field dominated by white headstones. Underneath lie the victims’ bones. Not all of the Srebrenica victims’ remains have been found, but the International Commission on Missing Persons, an NGO, works tirelessly to match DNA samples to bones so that families can have some closure. All of this to preserve memory.

In Kigali, memory is retained in a different way. The remains of some 250,000 victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide—a significant proportion of the 800,000 people who were killed overall—are interred, held in a memorial that has become an educational center aiming to ensure that generations born long after the slaughter remember how far hatred can go. It’s an impressive site: Foreign diplomats and UN officials leave moved, and often cite Rwanda as a model of post-conflict resolution.

All of these efforts have shortcomings. Rwanda, for example, works hard to retain memory, but its present points to the challenges of fully moving past conflict: The country’s strongman ruler, Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, leads the Rwandan Patriotic Front; UN reports have previously accused his forces of war crimes against Hutus.

And memorials don’t always heal wounds. When a Swedish artist attempted to memorialize the 2011 killings of 77 people in Norway, most of them young political activists, some Norwegians protested that it would bring only more pain. And although Srebrenica is commemorated every year, I have spoken with younger Bosnians who would prefer to leave the past behind—they do not want memories, nor do they want to visit the graves. They want to focus on the future.

For the moment, accountability in Syria needs to be put on hold. There is simply no realistic short-term path to obtain it. But I have witnessed enough wars to know that, one day, the country’s government will change. Assad will fall. His moment of reckoning will not be evaded.

When the opportunity to deliver justice does arrive, we must be prepared. The international community should focus on recording the horrors perpetrated by Assad and his regime so that when he is put before a court, we can call upon the work of those who lived them—the humanitarians, the journalists, the refugees, the survivors. We must preserve memory.